‘Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night’
(William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act II scene ii)
Under the waving hands of the maple’s foliage, the moonlight cast flowing shadows on the forest floor as the girl drifted across its silver surface. An owl hooted from the darkness ahead as it delivered its wisdom to the sleeping and the dead, too soon and too late. The girl was an outcast from the day’s sheen, but the moon never brought the warming comforts of the sun. The nocturnal world of Nyctimene was a borderline coldness sprinkled with dew, a tearless flight from the funeral pyres of her other life.
Just as the raven was once a silver bird with wings as white as doves, Nyctimene had been a child of the woods from the rise of the sun until it set, a feather for each wind that blew. The phases of the moon were most often seen from her bedroom window or obscured by the cascade of light from the city across the bay. But one day, the sun rose without anyone to greet it as the days turned dark behind locked doors and shuttered windows. Only Pestilence wandered the streets, its invisible and silent form as profane as a thunderstorm on the clearest day. Nights turned to flame as pyres burned on every street. Even the mourners soon fed the very flames they cursed. After most had turned to ashes, the daylight was claimed by something far more pernicious than a plague.
Nyctimene pulled the hood of her feather-jacket tighter around her head, a quick gesture to keep the memories of the daylight in while deflecting the doubting air of the night. She knew her eyes had grown keen after a year spent sleeping the past away in the ruins of a bird-blind while waking up to the sunset. But the magnifying nature of the darkness to sound still startled her. A rustling mouse was as alarming as a falling tree, the flight of the raven as likely to stir feelings of doom as--
(Faint Music-Corey Hart)
‘I wear my sunglasses at night
So I can, so I can
Watch you weave then breathe your story lines
And I wear my sunglasses at night
So I can, so I can
Keep track of the visions in my eyes
While she's deceiving me’
Nyctimene could hear the music ebb and flow with the steps of whoever was carrying it along. She dashed off the path and into the cover of stunted softwoods. At her heaving back, the tide continued to rise as the bay encroached on the rocky shore of the bird sanctuary. The borrowed light of the full moon cast its sheen on the very water it was moving. Huddled amongst the little things of night, the girl wished for proper wings to fly away or gills to keep her submerged in the shimmering bay. Voices joined the music.
“When I used to come here with my parents, you’d see all these fuckers walking around with binoculars and notebooks,” a man laughed. "Like they’d never seen a bird before. I was tired of pigeons by the time I was—“
“What is it?” A woman said.
“Nothing. Thought I heard something.”
“Nah. Something bigger. Anyway, birds are birds. Even swans are just big pigeons so— “
“You heard it, too?”
“Yeah,” the woman whispered. “Take off those fucking sunglasses. Jokes over.”
“It’s still funny. Anyway, they look better on me than they did on her. Can’t believe we didn’t bring more batteries. The song coming up was my favorite.”
“But we brought these.”
“Told you it was still fun to hunt at night. Never thought I’d be doing this in New York.”
As the voices drew closer, a pragmatic mischief smothered the fear in Nyctimene. Whistling had become far more common than speaking for her when her constant companions were birds rather than people. On the best of nights, when her spirits were high, the girl would put a mockingbird to shame as she whistled everything from the cardinal’s cry to a car alarm from a Volvo nobody would have broken into. But the skill was in the throw-ness of the calls, a way for her to be anywhere but where she actually was. As the voices drew closer, she puckered her lips, wrapped her knees around her mouth and whistled into her feather-jacket.
“Ooooooo—-oooooaaaaa….Ooooooo-oooooaaaaa,” Nyctimene whistled, into a trill.
“Listen!” The man said.
“It came from over there,” the woman whispered.
“Eeeeeeeee—-eeeeeeeeeee,” Nyctime whistled again, this time with her head between her legs with her lips almost touching the ground.
“Pigeon?” The woman laughed.
“Fuck you,” the man said. “C’mon, it sounded like it was that way.”
“Yeah. You and your sunglasses. Must be deaf, too.”
By the time Nyctimene had taken another deep breath to whistle the call of her second-favorite bird, a pair of hands had taken hold of her jacket and she was being dragging onto the path. Just as she managed to pull away, another pair of hands had taken hold of her ankles and held her hard. The man who held her was still wearing the sunglasses, the greater portion of the right side of his face scarred from fire. Behind her, the woman wrapped her hands around Nyctimene’s throat.
“See,” the woman grunted, as she held the struggling Nyctimene, “If you’d have taken off those shades, you’d have seen her, too. Bird of paradise wearing this shiny black plumage. Think you’re smart? Huh? Tough life with clipped wings.”
“Now what do we do with her?” The man huffed, his sunglasses flopping on his ruined nose as he held the girl’s ankles.
“Same as the other one,” the woman said.
“Same as it ever was….same as it ever was….same— “
“Stop quoting songs!” The woman yelled. “Stuck in the past.”
“Does this little bird talk? She struggles enough,” the man laughed.
“Hey, pretty bird,” the woman mocked in Nyctimene’s left ear. “Can you say, pretty bird? You are a pretty bird, aren’t you? Getting red in the face, pretty bird. Thought you tricked us, pretty bird. Huh, pretty— “
“Just do it, already,” the man cried.
“You have to hand it to me.”
“Easy for you to say. This bird kicks like a mule.”
“Just reach in your jacket and pull it out. Let her go for a second and then grab hold of her again. I can hold her.”
“Arite. Okay, here goes. On the count of three, now.”
“So fucking dramatic.”
The moment the shaded man let go of her ankles, Nyctimene twisted her thin neck in the woman’s embrace. As she pulled loose, pieces of her black hair were pulled loose like feathers of a bird in a trap. Nyctimene saw the woman’s face for the first time once she was free of her grasp. Pale horror had turned the woman’s face into an unfinished portrait as she met the sharp eyes of Nyctimene just as she leaped out of reach.
“Shoot her!” The woman yelled.
“I can’t see it!” The man grunted, pointing the pistol at the night.
“There’s plenty more,” the man sighed, lowering the pistol.
“We-have-not-eaten-meat-in-weeks!” The woman articulated to herself.
“She was probably infected like the rest.”
“If she were, she wouldn’t be here. Are you sure it was a female?”
“Males are brighter. Their feathers are colorful to attract females,” the man half-smiled.
“Fucking bird-watcher extraordinaire, right here.”
“It’s called birding.”
“Shut up. The pigeons were the ones who started all this shit, anyway. Hey dumbass, I thought all birds were pigeons.”
“Not this one.”
“So what was she?”
“Some kind of giant crow, I guess.”
“All birds are gray at night,” the woman muttered.
When the voices had been supplanted by the crickets, Nyctimene slowed her pace and crouched into herself. She felt like she was on the brink of catching fire as her heartbeat at the pace of a hummingbird’s. The canopy of maples and oaks mocked her from above, a world apart from her grounded existence as a forced creature skimming across the night. In spite of the near fatal encounter, Nyctimene knew her flight feathers were coming in as surely as the sun was rising. Just as dawn stretched her gray fingers across the receding bay, Nyctimene took a deep breath and called out to her favorite bird. When colors began to creep onto the shore, her whistle was answered.